Nawaz Sharif, Army and India

Raza Habib Raja

Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister elect, is considered a conservative by most of the Pakistani liberals. Yet, in some areas his point of view has been strikingly divergent from the mainstream conservative thought, particularly that which one continues to hear from the TV anchors all the time.

The two areas which make Nawaz Sharif stand out are: his continued emphasis on need to have better ties with India; and his hard stance towards Pakistan Army.

Any fair assessment ( even if conducted by “liberals”) has to acknowledge, Nawaz Sharif’s bold and in fact anti mainstream conservative approach in these two interrelated areas.

These two are intricately intertwined because Pakistan’s security doctrine has always been built around India. Ever since independence, first due to fear of re-annexation and later due to frequently hostile relationships over Kashmir, the entire focus has been to bolster the army to successfully defend against India.

There are several problems with this approach. First, India is a much bigger and richer country. No matter what, Pakistan cannot match it militarily. However, since security doctrine is built around India, therefore Pakistan has ended up spending much more than it could reasonably afford on defense. The purpose of course is to “match” Indian spending on defense. However, this is a race where Pakistan can never win even if it somehow or the other doubles its annual defense spending.

But even more importantly, the Pakistan Army has developed a perverse incentive with respect to relationship with India. Cognizant of the fact that friendship will actually render so much defense expenditure as unnecessary, it has always tried to sabotage the efforts, particularly those which originate from the civilian side.

In fact Nawaz Sharif’s second government got dismissed mainly due to his “mistake” of trying to make peace with India. Kargil episode was an ill-fated attempt by then COAS General Musharraf to derail the peace process by the sending the Pakistani troops into Indian territory. The sole purpose was nothing but to sabotage peace iniatiative and ensure the sustenance of animosity between the two states. In some ways, Nawaz Sharif lost his government because of his wish to make peace with India.

Not surprisingly, one of the first statements which he made after it became clear that he was going to be the Prime Minister was to reiterate his desire to have better relationships with India.

This statement has made waves and is being discussed in the international press also.
For example Reuters has published an article on this issue.

Interestingly the article has explicitly made reference to Pakistan Army and stated that it would be watching Sharif’s overtures.

Since the country has just made a transition and Nawaz Sharif has won an overwhelming majority therefore army’s influence to maneuver things will be severely limited at least in the first two years. Moreover if Nawaz Sharif is able to improve the badly bruised economy and address power cuts, then his relative position will further improve making it extremely difficult for the army to materially influence the political and foreign policy discourse.

It has to be kept in mind that no matter what we assume in reality army’s strength is relative. It will be able to wield greater power if the civilian side shows incompetence.

In Pakistan there is a trend to look everything through “conspiracy of the establishment” paradigm. However, the reality is quite complex. Army does not wield power only because of its monopoly over physical violence and its conspiracies, but because the balance of power changes towards it whenever civilian side is weakened by internal strife and incompetency.

Moreover, in Pakistan army has become entrenched due to path dependency. The argument is that if civil institutions, due to legacy or incompetency, do not get anchored in the polity, then army and civil bureaucracy, due to their better discipline and competency end up managing the civil affairs as well. Once that happens, a path is established which the polity follows.

Power and authority conferred to one particular institution (such as army) generally entrenches it due to positive feedback and also due to its own exercise of power (which is self-reinforcing) . Actors may use political authority to generate changes in the rules of the game (both formal institutions and various public policies) and redesign these to enhance their power. These aspects mean that in politics a status quo bias exists particularly with respect to hegemony of institutions like military.
In case of military, once it becomes involved in politics through a military coup, it becomes further entrenched due to adaptive expectations of the other political actors (both domestic and foreign), positive feedback and exercise of power ( backed by instruments of physical violence).
In Pakistan’s case, army draws its strength, not merely through “conspiracies” but also because of the positive feedback (which various domestic and foreign stakeholders have and continue to give it). After all when American Secretary of State, always meets Army High Command separately, and in fact attaches more importance to that compared to his meetings with the civilian leaders, then in the process, he is strengthening to the status quo.

Under these circumstances, army cannot be simply “sent to barracks”. For that the civilian leaders have to show competency and then take right decisions at the right time.

Generally path dependency trajectory can be broken if an extraordinary event occurs which completely discredits the military. In Pakistan’s history such event was East Pakistan debacle.

Never in the history of Pakistan, had its army seen such humiliation. In fact even till this date, in the collective psychology of the nation, East Pakistan debacle remains the lowest point in its entire history.
For 24 years before that fateful incident, among other things, prestige in the public had enabled army to become such a strong political player. Even when Ayub Khan himself was becoming unpopular, Pakistan Army still enjoyed considerable amount of respect. After the debacle, the Pakistan Army was discredited thoroughly.

Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had the support and popularity to build upon it and relegate army to a purely conventional role. However, he squandered the chance by ruling like a despot and targeting his political opponents.

This time also, the only chance was when OBL fiasco took place. But here also, both PPP and PML (N) were unable to come to an agreement. Both tried to undermine each other at critical junctures and particularly failed to take action when OBL incident happened. That was the time where a decisive action would have weaken army’s political prowess.

Now Nawaz Sharif has come to power and with a simple majority. It is well known that army leadership is not really comfortable with him. His peace initiative towards India will also be watched carefully.

Nawaz Sharif has to tread carefully. He does not need to out rightly confront the army. He has to take the control of foreign policy away from the army and into his control. However, he has to make sure that governance quality is improved and secondly, he has to make the right choice with respect to General Kayani’s replacement.

We will all be watching with bated breath as to what happens next.

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